Faculty Focus

Lee, Amy

Amy Lee, PhD

What is your hometown?

Toledo, Ohio

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

2008

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

Science and math were always my favorite subjects since I was in grade school, but it was not until I was an undergraduate that I got bit by the research bug.

I was on the pre-med track when I took an advanced course in animal physiology that involved a lab where we measured electrical activity in muscle. That was pretty exciting, and set the trajectory for my current research interests.

What interested you to pursue a career in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics?

I actually got my PhD in Neuroscience and trained in the Department of Pharmacology. However, the direction of our research has become much more mechanistic in the sense we are trying to learn why some of the forms of ion channel regulation we study are important in the context of vision, hearing, and neurological function. For this reason, my current department is a great match for my interests.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

My PhD mentor influenced my thinking about science as a career and helped me hone the practical skills of running a lab such as writing grants.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

Because of the new directions for my lab in auditory and vision research, I felt a need to be in an environment where these were major strengths. The University of Iowa is renowned in these areas and provided the perfect collaborative environment for what we are currently doing.

The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient-centered care and education?

We work on a number of mutations in genes that cause vision and/or hearing disorders in humans. We also work on understanding the physiological mechanisms that control neurological and cardiovascular functions. We hope that the insights obtained from this research can help us understand what causes human disease and lead to new therapies.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

The diversity of responsibilities is very appealing. Some days I write, other days I give lectures, mentor students, and too rarely, do experiments in the lab.

There is also a nice perk of being able to travel all over the world for conferences and seminar visits.

Please describe your professional interests.

My lab focuses on voltage-gated Ca2+ channels. These are the proteins that allow Ca2+, a very important signaling ion, into nerve, muscle, and endocrine cells in response to an electrical stimulus. These channels are necessary for muscles to contract, for our heart to beat, and for our brain to process information. We want to know what controls the function of these channels so that we can get a better handle on the numerous disorders associated with their dysregulation (e.g., epilepsy, ataxia, cardiac arrhythmia, deafness).

What led to your interest in voltage-gated Ca2+ channels?

I did a postdoctoral fellowship with one of the leaders in this field.

The lab environment and my project were so exciting that I continued to pursue this area as an independent scientist.

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

Through my secondary appointments in clinical departments (Neurology and Otolaryngology), I have learned a great deal about the medical contexts of our research. The collaborations I have established here have been invaluable for both me and my lab to grow our research into translational directions.

What are some of your outside interests?

I enjoy cycling and yoga. Also, I am a former cellist and so enjoy playing music, most recently in the CCOM faculty/staff orchestra directed by my husband, Mark Bernat.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

Never lose sight of the big picture.

The idea that our work could help toward a cure or provide a major new insight that makes possible new lines of research that can improve human health makes me realize what a privilege and responsibility it is to come to work every day.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

I would convince everyone at the federal level that there is a life-threatening crisis in this country, and indeed the world, if funding for biomedical research continues to stagnate.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

Without a doubt, the availability of all the genomic data for multiple organisms certainly has made possible so many new experimental strategies that were not possible when I was a student.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Most of us go into science because we are curious about how things work—maintaining that curiosity can keep you motivated and searching for answers in a way that guides the next big discoveries.

What do you see as "the future" of medicine/science?

I see the interface of technology and chemical biology with more conventional approaches as yielding really fundamental and exciting discoveries in many areas of medical research.

In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e,. population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?

I like to consider myself as an ambassador for the University of Iowa during my speaking engagements and other scientific endeavors that take me all over the world. The research done here is top-notch and I feel a responsibility to spread the word, which I hope helps recruit people at all levels to Iowa and especially the university.